Between the fundamentalists and the strict secularists, there’s a sane middle.At the end of March, a striking tableau appeared on the front page of the New York Times. Religious leaders representing the Abrahamic faiths had gathered in Jerusalem in common purpose. The six men stood before a long table littered with what looked to be the remains of a hastily planned news conference: water bottles, a few microphones, scattered papers, meager floral arrangements. Imposing in their hats and robes, carrying with them all of the gravitas of their respective traditions, these pillars of orthodoxy seemed nevertheless relaxed and friendly, turning toward one another while chatting informally, almost conspiratorially.
My first impression was that this gathering of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian clerics might herald a new era of ecumenical unity. Had they just announced a multi-faith peace initiative? Made a plea for tolerance? No: these lofty representatives of three great traditions had gathered to protest a gay pride festival planned for August. What suicide bombings, years of terrorism, and a decades-long occupation could not do to bring to about such a remarkable display of unity, gay pride activists had accomplished with not much more than plans for a little summer fun.
If a Buddhist representative had appeared in the picture, would it have been any different? The Buddhist monastic code—the Vinaya—proscribes sex of any sort, and takes great pains to define sex in all of its forms, including homosexuality. But the Vinaya applies to monastics only, and the original sutras contain little to define for the layperson what’s to do and what’s taboo. Nonetheless, later interpretations have led some Buddhist leaders to take a dark view of homosexuality, and while Western converts for the most part have preached tolerance and celebrated diversity, there is by no means unanimity on this issue among Buddhists worldwide.
When we consider gatherings like the one in Jerusalem, it’s no wonder secular society often dismisses religion as irrelevant to facts on the ground. Science and reason appear to be far more useful means to navigate reality. But it would be a mistake to define the religious traditions by their most intolerant proponents or weakest propositions (see Eliot Fintushel’s review of The End of Faith), or to cede ground in the religious discourse either to the fundamentalists or to strict secularists. As Princeton professor Elaine Pagels points out (see Saved by History), science and religion offer two entirely separate things: “In other words,” Pagels says, “science can tell us about how things work, but it cannot tell us what any of it means. Religion addresses a whole different range of issues. It addresses questions of meaning and value, and those are questions we still must ask. They are not out of date.”
Meaning, however, is precisely the point of debate, and where the fundamentalists and secularists are irreconcilably split. But for scholars like Pagels, there’s a middle ground. Historical study provides a remarkably wide range of views that can challenge beliefs dear to the fundamentalists and at the same time undercut any of the secularists’ accusations of irrelevance. Understanding religion in a way that’s relevant to contemporary experience is a task Pagels takes on with concise comparative analysis, providing the kind of openness and creativity so conspicuously absent in public discourse today. For Pagels, as you’ll read in this issue, history does not debunk religion, it only enriches it.
So how then to understand the gathering in Jerusalem? The clerics do not seem to be interested in open discussion; they seem to be in favor of closing it. There is little attempt at persuasion, only a call for forcibly preventing gay activists from voicing their opinions publicly. Yet open discussion is vital if we are to have the flexibility to imbue our beliefs with real-world relevance. There’s always a middle way, and with this issue we continue on that path.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.